Hurricane Paula weakened Wednesday on a rain-drenching crawl toward the lush tobacco-growing farmlands of western Cuba, threatening to inundate an area still seeking to recover from three major hurricanes in 2008.
At 8 p.m. EDT, Paula remained a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Centre in Miami said. It had been a Category 2 storm earlier in the day.
The hurricane’s small core was centred some 30 miles (45 kilometres) west of Cuba’s westernmost tip amid reports of heavy rain in the region, hours after Paula brushed past Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
After stalling briefly on Wednesday afternoon, Paula began a slow slog to the north-northeast at about 3 mph (6 kph), the centre said amid forecasts of a turn Thursday more to the northeast and east.
The hurricane was expected to pass very near or over western Cuba sometime Wednesday night or early Thursday, U.S. forecasters added. They predicted more gradual weakening by the storm over the next day or two amid possible heavy rains.
Cuban authorities issued a tropical storm warning for Havana and areas surrounding the capital as western Cuba braced.
Forecasters said Paula threatened a storm surge and anywhere between 3 and 6 inches of rainfall on parts of Cuba. The storm was small in area, with hurricane force winds extending just 10 miles (20 kilometres) from its center.
Mexican authorities earlier said American Mickey Goodwin, 54, of Corpus Christi, Texas, drowned Tuesday while swimming off a Cancun beach after he ignored warnings and red flags alerting to dangerous waters from the storm.
It was the only fatality reported so far.
Cuba’s chief meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said Paula was expected to weaken as it moved slowly across the western part of the island. He said rains would also be weaker than once expected, but warned they could still cause problems in some areas.
“This is really a very small hurricane,” Rubiera said. “The rains at times could be strong or intense in some areas of Pinar del Rio, but the truth is they shouldn’t be that strong. They could be prolonged, however, and that could lead to heavy accumulation.”
Despite the tropical storm warning in effect for the capital, Rubiera said Paula would likely have weakened to a tropical depression “if that” by the time it reached Havana on Friday.
In Pinar del Rio, many residents shuttered themselves indoors as heavy rain began falling Wednesday. Veterinarian Humberto Rodriguez and his 13-year-old daughter, Maria, made their way slowly in a horse and buggy down a highway near the town of Los Palacios, heading to their home nearby.
“I’m evacuating my daughter from boarding school and we’re going home to prepare,” said Rodriguez, 48. “I hope this one will not be as strong as the others.”
Cuban officials were taking no chances.
The communist government activated the island’s crack Civil Defense forces, which declared an alarm for Pinar del Rio and the Isla de la Juventud. Residents were urged to cover up windows with plywood, tie down loose items and stay vigilant for flooding and heavy rains. No evacuations were ordered.
Pinar del Rio was devastated by three hurricanes that hit the area and other parts of Cuba in 2008, doing about $10 billion in damage. The area is known for its high-quality tobacco fields and is crucial for Cuba’s famed cigar industry. Growers had planned to begin planting tobacco on Tuesday ahead of next year’s harvest.
Hurricane specialist Robbie Berg at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami noted that small hurricanes can be more unpredictable and the fact that Paula had slowed could actually raise the threat of heavy rainfall.
“Small storms are a little more volatile. They can strengthen more rapidly and weaken more rapidly so they are a little more unpredictable,” Berg told The Associated Press. “Whenever a storm is moving slower it’s going to spend a longer time over any particular area, dumping heavy rain.”
“Right now, western Cuba is under the gun.”
The middle and lower Florida Keys were put under a tropical storm watch even though no U.S. landfall is forecast at this time, he said.
As the storm left Mexican territory Wednesday, no major problems were reported in Cancun or other resort areas where some 27,000 tourists were visiting in October’s off-season. On Tuesday, heavy rains and high winds from Paula’s passage destroyed 19 homes in north-eastern Honduras, authorities said.